Get some propaganda with your popcorn

Sorry I missed this year's New York Film Festival. According to a report, the festival featured a dogfight for top tweaking-tender- religious-sensibilities-if-there-are-any-of-those-people-here honors. But director Pedro Almódovar's Bad Education, about priestly pedophilia, comes to the issue a bit late to lay a hand on British director Mike Leigh's Vera Drake.

Newsday scribe John Anderson wrote that Leigh's film "features a bravura performance by Imelda Staunton as a kindly -- no, saintly -- middle-class, post-war English wife and mother who happens to perform syringe abortions for needy women." Anderson informed readers that the film "won top Venice International Film Festival prizes last month" because of its "non-doctrinaire approach to a subject" which promises to "split friends, families, and nations."

Specifically the United States. The Newsday piece let slip that Leigh had planned Vera Drake with the 2004 elections in mind, knowing that there would be friction between President Bush and whoever the Democrats nominated. From London, Leigh told Anderson that he wanted "to confront the audience with a moral dilemma," though not in the usual canned way. The director said that the reception of his film in the Italian Catholic press had been decent: "The reviews have been kind of reasonable and say, 'Well, actually the film isn't black and white propaganda.'"

Black and white, no; propaganda, yes, is the judgment of James Bowman, movie reviewer for the New York Sun and the American Spectator, but that's not a bad thing. Bowman begins his review by arguing that "Leigh plays the propagandist, offering us a defense of legal abortion by trotting out again the idea of the saintly abortionist pioneered by John Irving in The Cider House Rules. But he does so with incomparably superior results." He explains:

So complete and so persuasive is the portrait [Leigh] paints of working class north London in 1950, when hardly anyone would have supported making abortion legal, that he undermines his own point. Everything about the film apart from the propaganda is done so well that the propaganda, when it comes, strikes a jarring note and sounds out of place.

Bowman argues that Leigh's interest in the subject stems from his interest in the buttoned-up mores of postwar Britain. From dress to manners to euphemism, this was a society that tried hard to repress certain impulses that were judged dirty or shameful -- with some success. In the movie critic's judgment, the director does such an effective job recreating this people and setting that the larger point is swallowed up in a world where "abortion" was not a word that people were willing to just throw around.

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